As the shift to remote work continues, it’s more important than ever to understand the impact it has on our mental and emotional wellbeing. A recent study in the Organizational Psychology Review shows that remote work can lead to burnout if proper work-life boundaries are not established. This is because the loss of “liminal space,” a time free of both home and work roles, can result in role blurring and stress.
My clients who I help transition to hybrid and remote work arrangements often express concern about employee burnout as part of this transition; the study reinforces the focus on work-life boundaries and mental and physical breaks that I encourage my clients to provide to their staff.
The Role of Commutes in Mental Transition and Recovery
The study found that commutes were a source of “liminal space” – a time free of both home and work roles that provides an opportunity to recover from work and mentally switch gears to home. During the shift to remote work, many people lost this built-in support for these important daily processes. Without the ability to mentally shift gears, people experience role blurring, which can lead to stress and burnout.
The study reviewed research on commuting, role transitions, and work recovery to develop a model of a typical American worker’s commute liminal space. The model showed that the liminal space created in the commute created opportunities for psychological detachment from work and psychological recovery from work. However, day-to-day variations in commutes can affect whether this liminal space is accessible for detachment and recovery.
The Benefits of Creating a Commute for Remote Workers
An additional follow-up study examined the commutes of 80 university employees to test the conceptual model. The results showed that most workers used the commute’s liminal space to both mentally transition from work to home roles and to start psychologically recovering from the demands of the workday.
The study also confirmed that daily variance in commutes predict the ability to do so. On days with longer-than-average commutes, people reported higher levels of psychological detachment from work and were more relaxed during the commute. However, on days when commutes were more stressful than usual, they reported less psychological detachment from work and less relaxation during the commute.
The findings suggest that remote workers may benefit from creating their own form of commute to provide liminal space for recovery and transition – such as a 15-minute walk to mark the beginning and end of the workday.
It’s important to note that our cognitive biases can impact how we handle remote work and the loss of liminal space. Confirmation bias and optimism bias can lead us to downplay the impact of remote work on our wellbeing. On the other hand, loss aversion and pessimism bias can cause us to overestimate the negative effects and resist change.
Enhancing Work Detachment and Relaxation During Commutes
For those who have returned to the workplace, the study suggests seeking to use the commute to relax as much as possible. Commuters can try to avoid ruminating about the workday and instead focus on personally fulfilling uses of the commute time, such as listening to music or podcasts, or calling a friend. Other forms of commuting such as public transit or carpooling may also provide opportunities to socialize.
The data shows that commute stress detracts from detachment and relaxation during the commute more than a shorter or longer commute. So some people may find it worth their time to take the “scenic route” home in order to avoid tense driving situations.
Improving Well-Being With Breaks During the Day
Other studies reveal that taking breaks for both the mind and body can combat exhaustion, boost productivity, and minimize errors. Therefore, I urge my clients to support their workers, whether working in the office or remotely, to allocate at least 10 minutes of break time each hour, with at least half of those being physical in nature, like stretching or moving around, to counteract the hazards of prolonged sitting. The remaining breaks should comprise restful mental activities, such as meditation, napping, or anything else that brings rejuvenation.
To make these breaks possible, organizations such as the University of Southern California’s Information Sciences Institute, one of my clients, have trimmed hour-long meetings to 50 minutes and half-hour meetings to 25 minutes. That offers employees a chance to recharge both mentally and physically while also providing transition time.
Most of what can be accomplished in an hour-long meeting can be achieved within 50 minutes. Just be mindful to wrap up at the 40-minute mark and 20-minute mark for 25-minute meetings. Attendees welcome shorter meetings, and managers learn to be more effective and timely.
In conclusion, remote work can lead to burnout if proper work-life boundaries are not established. Understanding the concept of liminal space and how it affects our ability to detach from work and recover is crucial in avoiding burnout and protecting our wellbeing. By creating our own form of commute and focusing on relaxing activities during the transition, we can take control of our mental and emotional health while working remotely.
The shift to hybrid and remote work has had a significant impact on the traditional line between work and home life. The study in Organizational Psychology Review highlights the importance of having good work-life boundaries for remote workers to avoid burnout and protect their wellbeing. By creating a form of commute, remote workers can provide themselves with liminal space for recovery and transition. For those who have returned to the workplace, the study suggests seeking to use the commute to relax as much as possible to enhance work detachment and relaxation during commutes. And mental and physical breaks during the day can further improve well-being and decrease remote worker burnout.
Remote workers can prevent burnout by creating their own “mental commute” to establish work-life boundaries and provide time for recovery and transition. Mental and physical breaks during the day can also improve well-being and decrease burnout…>Click to tweet
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Originally published in Disaster Avoidance Experts on March 01, 2023.